Has Reality TV Become Black Women's Enemy?

From ''The Real Housewives of Atlanta'' to ''What Chilli Wants,'' these days, reality TV is fixated on black women. But only when we act the fool.

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''I wouldn't want to say that what you're seeing on [The] Real Housewives of Atlanta is emblematic of everything that black women are going through,'' said Andy Cohen, senior vice president for original programming and development at Bravo. ''But when you put four women under the microscope, then you're somehow portraying issues that a whole lot of black women can relate to. It's fun,'' he added, emphasizing that the show isn't meant to be taken seriously. ''It puts a smile on my face.''

Last fall, I spent time speaking with a number of network executives. They all assured me that things might be changing for black women characters in the new season. Story lines on VH1 and BET would emphasize less petty conflict and more of the daily struggles of black women: being mothers, looking for romance, healing family relationships and striving for lasting careers.

''It's a new brand initiative,'' BET's Brookins told me. ''We have a new president of programming [Loretha Jones came on board in late 2008] and half of us are mothers. So ... the shift is coming from a very honest place. These are shows that we believe and want to see.''

Similarly, new VH1 shows like Let's Talk About Pep, starring Sandra Denton of Salt-n-Pepa fame and What Chilli Wants, featuring Rozonda ''Chilli'' Thomas from the R&B vocalist group, TLC, aren't about competitions, or a group of people living together in a house under pressure, said Jeff Olde, executive vice president of original programming and production for VH1.

I was curious to see if the reality would live up to network hype. So recently, I took a random sampling of the new shows to see how this season was shaping up: On VH1, Brandy was having a shouting match with both her brother and her business manager. True, there was no hair-pulling or cursing. But still. Later, several basketball wives made clear their mutual dislike for one another and a preview of the next episode promised an actual physical fight.

LisaRaye was more civilized: a brief confrontation with her daughter about a bottle of alcohol she found in the trunk of the car quickly blew over and ended with kisses.

Of course, there will always be drama on reality shows. In fact, some reality cast members have claimed that producers often fuel tensions and physical confrontations by putting cast members in situations where they may be sleep and food-deprived--and where alcohol flows freely.

''When you sign on to do a train-wreck show, you have to deliver that,'' says D'Angela Proctor Steed, executive producer of Sunday Best, a gospel competition reality show on BET. ''And I do think producers cross a line in order to make the train wreck bigger, or to make them happen faster.''

''That's not what we're doing,'' countered Jeff Olde of VH1. ''We don't have that intention.''